Recently, I've been trying to read various translations of the Bible side by side. Not just NIV (New International Version), or the good ol' NKJV (New King James Version), but also the CJB (Complete Jewish Bible), a Messianic Bible translation.
The translation we choose to read from is extremely important. It can change the way you view scripture, for good or bad. Likewise, it's essential we recognize these texts for what they are: translations — not the actual text.
I can recall many church services where the Pastor would reference a single English word and emphasize how special it was that this specific word was used in a particular passage as if the translation had the same divine potency as the original text document.
There is still much unrest about the status of the Bible in general. Is it a historical document? Is it a rule-book? Is it wisdom literature? Is it a compilation of stories? Is it a mix of all of these?
Furthermore, is the Bible divinely inspired (meaning it was written by God through human hands)? Or is, perhaps, one part of the Bible divine, such as The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible)? Or how out the entire Bible just being made by humans, with human problems, human sin, and human misunderstanding?
In any case, we cannot deny the fact that these books have been compiled over and over again over thousands of years, and translated through Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, German, Yiddish, English and sometimes English again (hence the 'new' in New International Version). In many cases, the Bibles we read from have gone between languages many times.
A classic example of translation skewing the meaning of a passage is in the '10 Commandments'.
First off, there are not just 10 commandments. Some people find 11, 12, 14 within the set that goes on the tablets and there is debate over where they begin and end. More broadly, however, there are 613 mitzvot sprawled throughout the Hebrew Bible, and not one is more important than others, from a Jewish perspective. This means that eating Kosher is literally as important as taking a Sabbath or taking a good bath after menstruation.
Furthermore, there is a lot of debate about the translation of the Hebrew word mitzvot to commandments. Online you'll find a lot of sources defining it best as either a commandment or as a good deed. I had a professor once who translated it best as 'word,' 'statements,' or 'declarations' from the Hebrew. In other words, not everyone agrees with the 16th-century Christian translations that turn these mitzvot into a legalist principle.
How would our understanding of Hebrew scripture shift if we saw mitzvot not as law and law-breaking, but as wisdom to help us live good, healthy, prosperous lives? Perhaps many of us wouldn't still be wrestling with the same shame and fear we do today.
Further implications of this understanding of biblical law require a reexamination of the following phrases that I have all heard in the past week.
"We need more commandment-following Pastors!"
"Judaism was about rules and feeling bad about yourself. Christianity is about freedom and love."
"Jesus came to fulfill the law, so we mustn't concern ourselves with those old, outdated practices."
Would you be surprised to hear that more than one of these quotes come from the same person?
There are many, many articles that could be made, inspired by such rhetoric, but for now I will say the following few statements: by cherry-picking laws and elevating a select few's importance to our lives, we wrongfully 'over-judge' specific individuals that Jesus called us to love!
Furthermore, these 'commandments' are not Christian in origin. These areJewish. If you want commandment-following Pastors, you should learn to respect all of the commandments, not just your favorite few.
Do you really believe a God who created the universe would instruct His people to abstain from pork, shellfish, and shrimp for the fun of it? I firmly believe each mitzvah God spoke was with the intention of making our lives better, healthier, or more apt to fulfill his purpose.
Spoiler alert: Jesus ate kosher and was circumcised (I know, crazy). He still abided by Jewish law and ethics. Yes, he redefined the way we should let the law control our lives, and drew a distinction between the Pharisee approach versus his own, but they still were speaking of the same issues.
How can Christians point at Jews and say, "You silly people practicing silly laws!" Jesus followed those 'silly laws.'
Okay, back to translations (and this one is mind-blowing).
Another great example is of Moses at the Burning Bush. We all know the story; Moses is walking around far from Egypt when he encounters a Burning Bush, which effectively speaks as God. After some conversing, Moses is getting pretty flustered and asks the Bush for a name to tell the Pharoh he is sent by.
In the NKJV, Exodus 3:14, it's written:
And God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM."
Wow. Powerful. God identifies as "I Am," which implies an omnipresence, security, a power, and also shuts Moses up in the process. After hearing this verse recited so many times, I practically have it etched into my brain.
The Complete Jewish Bible takes a very different approach to the same source text. Remember, this is just the English translations, not to mention Latin, Greek, or Hebrew:
God said to Moshe, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh [I am/will be what I am/will be]," and added, "Here is what to say to the people of Isra'el: 'Ehyeh [I Am or I Will Be] has sent me to you.'"
Wow! Not only is He, but he will be and will be what He is! This carries with it a whole additional set up implications: infinity, time, an existence untangled in our own. There are so many new ways to look at the character of God through these kinds of interpretations.
It does beg the question, however, how two texts can theoretically be divinely inspired but be written in two very different ways (if you favor this line of thought)?
A final little example that, perhaps, is not so groundbreaking, is in the case of the Book of Hebrews. I've always loved Hebrews. There's plenty of fantastic content that feels very approachable.
I can tell you, though, in my 19 years of hearing scripture that I never realized that Hebrews was addressed to the Hebrews until I opened up my NIV/CJB side-by-side translation.
On the NIV side, the top corner was nicely formatted to indicate that I was reading Hebrews. On the CJB side, in place of the word 'Hebrews', it said Messianic Jews. That's when it clicked to me. The book was written for the Jews at the time who were trying to understand how Jesus fit into their existing worldview. They wanted answers about what this did to affect their rituals and laws. They didn't want to overstep their bounds.
There is a reason this book is called Hebrews (and yes, this is a proper translation across the board) and not Christians, or Gentiles I'm Trying to Convert, or My Friends Who Eat Pork In The Germanic Regions. This book was speaking to Jews, who alongside Jesus, participated in a very specific, God-appointed way of life — a life, in no small degree, they wanted to preserve.
Hebrews then becomes one of the most important books of the Bible for those who want to understand how the 613 laws translate to a Jesus-centered faith.
This piece is not, by any means, an assertion that I know how to read the Bible better than anyone else or even a suggestion to read from the CJB instead of the NIV or NKJV. This is a call to reexamine the way we view our religious texts — an illustration of the margin of interpretant liberties taken within each translation.
Each translation also has allegiances, a messy fact we don't always want to touch. There's a reason 'The Holy Bible' (Protestant Christian), 'The Catholic Bible,' and 'The Hebrew Bible' translate differently across the board. They all interpret their text in light of the central goal, whatever that may be. It's reasons like this that the Quran is only truly considered Holy if it is kept in its source text, Arabic. Any translations to another language, such as English, is considered less legitimate.
Having studied such issues for the better part of a year now, I find myself having great difficulty asserting, "The Bible says x or y." After all, this is just my interpretation as a young, single, 21st-century woman with relatively advanced education.
To get a richer understanding of Biblical text, I encourage everyone to pull from at least three translations of the Bible, and recognize that every reading of the Bible will be 1) filtered through the lens of the interpreter and 2) filtered through the lens of the reader. If you believe that the Bible was not divinely inspired, then we must add a third lens, 3) the lens of the writer themselves.